Anyone who saw the newspaper reports about the one-legged man who climbed Mount Everest recently will have marvelled at his courage and skill. More locally, one of the most treasured college tales suddenly seems less bizarre.
It is alleged that, many years ago, a PE teacher was appointed to the college as a result of a selection process consisting only of a telephone conversation. When the teacher arrived to take up his duties it turned out that he was one leg short of a pair, a fact which he had not mentioned while on the phone, and a point which the then principal had not thought to raise with him earlier. Well, you wouldn't, would you?
Selection is a bit more thorough these days: an observation born out of the recent experience of interviewing for a number of jobs at the college. More thorough, but by no means flawless. When you think that nearly 70 pence in every pound spent by a typical college goes on staffing, it's obvious that appointments are the most important investment we make. At an all-in cost of, say pound;25K per year, a teacher who stays ten years will account for a quarter of a million of public money. Not peanuts. Best to avoid giving the job to a monkey.
Football managers, or their scouts, spend weeks watching potential recruits actually doing what they are paid to do. Enterprising players compile videos of their golden moments and send them to managers of clubs where they would like to work. Could we ask candidates to let us have a video of themselves in action, handling a variety of classes, chairing the odd meeting or completing one of the Funding Council's Byzantine forms?
Well, we don't. We ask their current manager how they perform, and we ask lecturers to give us a glimpse of their form by teaching a micro lesson, one they have prepared earlier. Others might get a basket of artfully assembled paperwork to unravel and respond to. It's an attempt at simulated work experience, but it's not the real thing.
But then, what is? Try as we do to make the day as stress-free as possible, candidates wear their best interview clothes, pull their stomachs in, and make sure that they don't let their peas fall off their knife over lunch. We have to guess what they are really like, just as they have to make a quick assessment about whether the college is all that it appears to be. Psychometric tests? Handwriting analysis? Been there, tried them. The most reliable indicator we ever had was the barman in the hotel in which we used to accommodate the candidates. Just by watching them relaxing in the evening he was able to pick the next day's successful candidate. He would never reveal his methods, but the name he put in the sealed envelope was the right one. He has moved on, and in any case we now have our own college-run hotel, so that's that.
So we still place a lot of weight, probably too much, on the formal interview. We sit there, asking polite questions, receiving well-prepared answers, and silently speculating about what mathematical, historical or musical feats the candidate might perform if appointed.
We use the identical standard procedure for carpenters, cooks and chemists. We apply the same criteria to all the individuals whose life experience is so infinitely varied: hopeful new entrants, eyes bright, tails bushy; case-hardened ex-Colonials with a line of anguish in their smile; would-be refugees from unsatisfying current jobs; people who fancy the open hills after too long in the recycled air of the big city. We try to find their character through the mass of information available, getting clues from their lists of other interests.
Once they are in post, however, little of this remains. They are defined primarily by their technical performance, not by their continuing interest in the history of the xylophone, their contribution to the organisation of the church choir, or their passion for inventing vegetarian recipes. Yet these were the eye-catching scraps of individuality which may, all else being equal, have got them the job in the first place.
Bringing new staff into the college remains one of the best ways to spend a day. There is the sense that the bloodstream of the college is being renewed by the enthusiasm and ideas of the person on whom the finger falls.
Euphoric winners of the final round will invariably say how lucky they feel they are to be appointed, and how much they are looking forward to working at this wonderful college. We think we have appointed the right person, they agree; no wonder there is a warm glow of mutual admiration about the place. Warts come later.
r = Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College